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Kentucky lawmakers pass bill revamping jobless benefit rules

March 9, 2022 GMT

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Kentucky gave final passage Tuesday to a bill revamping rules for unemployment benefits, setting up another policy conflict with the Democratic governor.

Key parts of the proposal would increase work-search requirements for people receiving jobless benefits and tie the length of time recipients get benefits to the unemployment rate. That provision could cut the number of benefit weeks by more than half in times of low jobless rates.

The sweeping measure — backed by the influential Kentucky Chamber of Commerce — cleared the GOP-dominated legislature on a 58-36 House vote Tuesday. The bill now goes to Gov. Andy Beshear, who recently said the proposal would hurt people needing help after losing their jobs.

Republicans hold commanding majorities in the House and Senate, giving them the numbers to override the governor’s vetoes. The contentious issue has splintered GOP ranks, with some eastern Kentucky lawmakers speaking out against the measure. They say it would hurt their constituents struggling to find work in a region where many coalfield and manufacturing jobs have vanished.

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Supporters say the bill represents an important step toward improving the state’s workforce shortages as businesses struggle to fill jobs. The bill’s lead sponsor is GOP Rep. Russell Webber.

“We can’t become known as a state that is short on workers,” Kentucky Chamber executive Kate Shanks told a House committee several weeks ago. “This is a huge issue for us to tackle.”

Opponents said the stricter jobless-benefit rules would increase hardships for many laid-off workers, forcing them to accept lower-wage jobs as they face a quicker cutoff of benefits.

The state now offers up to 26 weeks of eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits. Under the bill, people would collect benefits between 12 to 24 weeks, with the length determined by an indexing formula based on unemployment trends. The bill would add five weeks of benefits for people enrolled in approved job training or certification programs.

“Just as Kentucky allows for more weeks of benefits when the economy is bad, it should offer fewer weeks when the economy is strong and jobs are widely available,” Republican Sen. Wil Schroder said in supporting the measure during an earlier debate.

The increased work-search requirements could lead more people to leave struggling rural regions where job prospects are more scarce, the bill’s critics say.

In an emotional speech during the recent Senate debate, Republican Sen. Phillip Wheeler predicted the new standards would cause “great misery” in his area of eastern Kentucky.

Opponents also challenged the claims that the new rules would boost workforce participation. Beshear told reporters recently that job market issues are driven by such factors as the retirement of baby boomers and the availability of child care.

“I’m opposed to it and it’s not going to help our workforce participation,” the governor said of the bill. “It’s just going to harm some people who need that safety-net benefit.”

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The legislation is House Bill 4.